For years, our prevailing view of student retention has been shaped by theories that view student retention through the lens of institutional action and ask what institutions can do to retain their students. Students, however, do not seek to be retained. They seek to persist. The two perspectives, although necessarily related, are not the same. Their interests are different.
While the institution’s interest is to increase the proportion of their students who graduate from the institution, the student’s interest is to complete a degree often without regard to the college or university in which it is earned. When viewed from the students’ perspective, persistence is but one form of motivation. Students have to be persistent in their pursuit of their degrees and be willing to expend the effort to do so even when faced with challenges they sometimes encounter. Without motivation and the effort it engenders, persistence is unlikely -- institutional action aside.
To promote greater degree completion, institutions have to adopt the student perspective and ask not only how they should act to retain their students but also how they should act so that more of their students want to persist to completion. The two questions, while necessarily linked, do not lead to the same sort of conversations about institutional action. The latter, rarely asked, requires institutions to understand how student experiences shape their motivation to persist and, in turn, what they can do to enhance that motivation.
The answer to that question is far from simple. Many experiences shape student motivation to persist, not all of which are within the capacity of institutions to easily influence (e.g., events beyond the campus that pull students away from persistence). But of those that are, three stand out as being central to student motivation: students’ self-efficacy, sense of belonging and perceived value of the curriculum.
Self-efficacy refers to a person’s belief in their ability to succeed at a particular task or in a specific situation. It is one manifestation of how past experiences shape how individuals come to perceive themselves and their capacity to have some degree of control over their environment. Self-efficacy is learned, not inherited. It is malleable, not fixed. It is not generalizable in that it applies to all tasks and situations but can vary depending on the particular task or situation at hand. A person may feel capable of succeeding at one task but not another.
When it comes to students’ belief in their ability to succeed in college, a strong sense of self-efficacy promotes goal attainment, while a weak sense undermines it. Whereas people with high self-efficacy will engage more readily in a task, expend more effort on it and persist longer in its completion even when they encounter difficulties, persons with low self-efficacy will tend to become discouraged and withdraw when encountering difficulties. Although many students begin college confident in their ability to succeed, more than a few do not, in particular those whose past experiences lead them to question their ability to succeed in college as well as those who experience stereotype threats that label them as less likely to succeed.
But even those who enter college confident in their ability to succeed can encounter challenges that serve to weaken their sense of self-efficacy. That is particularly true during the crucial first year as students seek to adjust to the heightened demands of college. What matters for success in that year, however, is not so much that students enter college believing in their capacity to succeed, as it is that they come to believe they can as the result their early experiences.
Therefore while it is important that institutions challenge existing labels as marking some students as less likely to succeed than others, it is equally important that students are able to obtain the timely support they need to succeed when they encounter early difficulties in meeting the academic, and sometimes social, demands of college. To be effective, such support must occur before student struggles undermine their motivation to persist -- thus the need for institutions to employ early-warning systems that, when properly implemented, alert faculty and staff to struggling students and trigger support when needed. Midterm grades will not do.
Sense of Belonging
While believing one can succeed in college is essential for persistence to completion, it does not in itself ensure it. For that to occur, students have to come to see themselves as a member of a community of other students, faculty and staff who value their membership -- that they matter and belong. Thus the term “sense of belonging.” The result is often expressed as a commitment that serves to bind the individual to the group or community even when challenges arise. It is here that engagement with other people on the campus matters. But more important still are students’ perceptions of those engagements and the meaning they derive from them as to their belonging.
Although a sense of belonging can mirror students’ prior experiences, it is most directly shaped by the broader campus climate and their daily interactions with other students, faculty, staff and administrators on campus -- and the messages those interactions convey. Students who perceive themselves as belonging are more likely to persist because it leads not only to enhanced motivation but also a willingness to become involved with others in ways that further promote persistence. In contrast, a student’s sense of not belonging, of being out of place, leads to a withdrawal from contact with others that further undermine motivation to persist.
Here there is much colleges and universities can do. First, they must ensure that all students see the institution as welcoming and supportive -- that the culture is one of inclusion. They can do so by not only speaking to issues of exclusion but also by promoting those forms of activity that require shared academic and social experiences. In the academic realm, that can take the form of cohort programs and learning communities. Within classrooms, it can mean using pedagogies like cooperative and problem-based learning that require students to learn together as equal partners. In the social realm, institutions can take steps to provide for a diversity of social groups and organizations that allow all students to find at least one smaller community of students with whom they share a common bond. However they promote students’ sense of belonging, institutions should address it at the very outset of students’ journey -- indeed as early as orientation. As is the case for self-efficacy, developing a sense of belonging during the first year facilitates other forms of engagement that enhance student development, learning and completion.
Perceived Value of the Curriculum
Students’ perceptions of the value of their studies also influence their motivation to persist. Although what constitutes value is subject to much debate, the underlying issue is clear: students need to perceive the material to be learned is of sufficient quality and relevance to warrant their time and effort. Only then will they be motivated to engage that material in ways that promote learning and, in turn, persistence. Curriculum that is seen as irrelevant or of low quality will often yield the opposite result.
Addressing this issue is challenging if only because student perceptions of the curriculum vary not only among different students but also the differing subjects they are asked to learn. But there are steps institutions can and should take. First, institutions should see to it that students enroll in a field of study appropriate to their needs and interests, that they find the material within those courses sufficiently challenging to warrant their effort and, with academic support, reasonably within their reach to master. Second, they should ensure that the curriculum -- in particular, but not only, in the social sciences and humanities -- is inclusive of the experiences and histories of the students who are asked to study that curriculum. Third, institutions, specifically the faculty, should be explicit in demonstrating how the subjects that students are asked to learn can be applied to meaningful situations in ways that have relevance to issues that concern them. This is particularly important in first-year introductory courses as they serve as gateways to courses that follow. Too often, meaningful connections in those courses are left for students to discover.
One way of making those connections is to use pedagogies, such as problem and project-based learning, that require students to apply the material they are learning to resolve concrete problems or to complete a project that frames the class. Another is through contextualization, where students are asked to learn material within the context of another field, as is the case in developmental education, where basic skills are taught in the context of another area of study. In this and similar cases, students are more likely to want to learn basic skills because it helps them learn a subject in which they are interested. One promotes the learning of the other.
Colleges and universities can also achieve contextualization through the use of learning communities. When properly implemented, students co-register in two or three courses that are linked through an issue, problem or project that provides a unifying theme to the community. Such multiple course linkages can provide not only academic and social support but also promote a form of interdisciplinary learning that is not easily achieved in stand-alone courses. Lest one forget, the goal of persistence is not simply that students complete their degrees, but that they learn in powerful ways while doing so. Education is the goal of our efforts; persistence is only a vehicle for its occurrence.
All this is not to say that students will not persist if they have little sense of belonging or see little value in their studies. Some will if only because of external pressures to do so (e.g., family) or because of the perceived value of obtaining their degree from the institution (e.g., occupation, income and status outcomes). But doing so is a hollow achievement, for it fails to take advantage of the intrinsic benefits of a college education: belonging and learning. At the same time, as Sara Goldrick-Rab has made abundantly clear, many students, especially those from low-income backgrounds, who want to persist are unable to do so because they simply can’t afford the full cost of attendance. Many would succeed if only they could find a reasonable way of financing their education.
There is little doubt that many colleges and universities have improved rates of student completion. But they can and should do more. Institutions must expand their conversation about college completion beyond simply how they can retain their students to how they can act in ways that lead all students to want to stay and complete their degrees. Though it is undeniably the case that academic ability matters, student motivation is the key to student persistence and completion. But addressing student motivation requires institutions to do more than simply issue another survey questionnaire. Rather, it necessitates that they understand students’ perceptions of their experience and how events throughout the campus influence their perceptions and shape, in turn, their motivation to persist.
Colleges and universities need to listen to all their students, take seriously their voices and be sensitive to how perceptions of their experiences vary among students of different races, income levels and cultural backgrounds. Only then can they further improve persistence and completion while addressing the continuing inequality in student outcomes that threaten the very fabric of our society.
Vincent Tinto is Distinguished University Professor Emeritus at Syracuse University.
Around this time every year, as colleges and universities begin to spring back to life, I am reminded of my years working within central administration and the excitement in watching the sea of people full of promise come spilling back onto the campus. I remember the familiar faces of returning students, beaming with the fresh potential of a new year, who dropped by just to declare themselves back again or share goals for the year hatched over the summer.
But I also remember just as clearly the faces of the students who didn’t return. Those we lost somewhere along the way to graduation.
Many of those students still haunt me today. I remember one freshman I met when I was working as vice chancellor and chief of staff at UNC Greensboro. She came into my office at the end of the spring semester in tears. A straight-A student through high school, she arrived on our campus full of confidence. But that confidence was shattered when her professors told her that she was a terrible writer. She struggled through the year in silence, determined to improve. But she never got the help she needed. The tears rolled down that young woman’s face as she learned that she’d been placed on academic probation and would lose her scholarship. It was too late. We were too late.
There are thousands more stories like this young woman’s -- of students from low-income families who could have made it farther than their parents did but whom we somehow failed along the way.
We used to blame our students: their poverty, their underpreparation, the extra burdens they carry. It turns out, though, that it’s a lot about us. Yes, poverty and preparation matter. But the choices we make matter, too. Some institutions are simply doing a much better job of graduating their students than other institutions serving exactly the same kinds of students.
As we begin a new academic year, this can be a moment for improvement-minded institutional leaders to engage campus communities in honest, data-driven conversations about what we might do better. How can we more fully understand the journeys our students take on the way to the degree, noting where those journeys are speeded and guided, and where they derail? How can we renew our collective commitment to expand what's working and to confront -- and address -- what’s not?
To assist institutional leaders in their reflection and planning, The Education Trust has sought to identify and broadly share the high-impact practices of institutional leaders who have driven impressive improvement in completion rates, particularly for students who have gone historically underrepresented -- and underserved -- on our campuses: low-income and first-generation students and students of color. Most recently we’ve examined practices at Florida State University, San Diego State University, the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire and Georgia State University.
While each of these institutions is distinct in their mission, and each set of leaders distinct in their style, at the core of their improvement efforts are common practices and qualities -- many of them steeped in honest analysis of data. Those practices and qualities are:
Courage. When then San Diego State President Stephen Weber addressed his Faculty Senate, applauding the many ways in which the faculty had worked toward -- and attained -- excellence over the years, he went on to issue a challenge that would spark a decade-long improvement effort: “But a great university doesn’t lose almost two-thirds of its Latino freshmen along the road toward graduation.” Like Weber, all of the leaders at the campuses we’ve been learning from are clear-eyed, intentional and dogged in their approaches to institutional improvement. They roll up their sleeves alongside staff and faculty and ask hard questions of the data on student matriculation and success. They zero in on areas of strength and weakness to draw out promising practices and needed interventions.
Shared commitment. These leaders are keenly aware that, while they have a strong role to play in leading change, staff and faculty members operating closest to their students are the ones who enact that change. Using data, leaders at University of Wisconsin Eau Claire engaged departments as partners and problem solvers. Said one senior leader on campus, “We give them the data … we’re not telling them where the problem is; they identify the problem and we encourage them to solve the problem.”
In examining their data, they found that, while their six-year graduation rate was relatively high, the four-year graduation rate was extremely low at just 18 percent. To address that pattern, faculty and staff members identified course bottlenecks and acted to remove them.
At each of the institutions we’ve studied, leaders draw together partners at every level -- senior administrators, department heads, faculty members, student-affairs professionals -- to engage in data analysis and problem solving. And they arrive not with answers, but with questions, trusting that those assembled in the room have much to contribute to improvement efforts.
Timely data for targeted interventions. These leaders understand that their students struggle in real time -- and that those working closest to them need information to intervene in real time. Further, they know from disaggregating data that all students don’t struggle at the same time with the same obstacles or need the same supports. They take time to parse data to understand the needs of all their students -- first generation, transfer, black, Latino, immigrant and many others. They identify benchmarks and warning indicators to ensure that no student is left to languish and disappear at any point in their educational journey without real supports to turn the situation around.
For example, practitioners at Georgia State University noted, “Four or five years ago, we had nothing consistent in our system that would help us track students.” Today, an impressive online data repository gives faculty and staff members immediate access to 130 screens of the most requested data on student progression and success. Through their Graduation and Progression Success advising system, which tracks more than 700 markers of student success, nightly feeds generate lists of which students have missed which markers. That information enables advisers to reach out immediately with targeted support for students who stumble.
Continuing evaluation of the data. Leaders at these institutions always come back to the data. A longtime campus leader at Florida State University described the cultural change ushered in by former provost Lawrence G. Abele: “When he came in, there was a huge shift in culture. It was no longer OK to just do things you thought were right; you needed data to support new ideas and also to assess, evaluate and improve current programs.”
For instance, when campus leaders analyzed their dropout patterns, they found that while white students were most at risk of dropping out in their first year, black male students were more likely to leave after the second, third or even fifth year. They realized that their retention efforts needed to stretch beyond freshman year to guide students through the entire undergraduate trajectory. Like Abele, leaders at these fast-improving institutions convene their teams regularly to monitor and review the data and to make midcourse corrections to ensure that their efforts, energies and resources are directed where they are most needed.
The lessons these leaders offer provide real insight from within successful college and university change efforts. They remind all of us in higher education that “success for some” is no great institution’s epitaph -- that institutional success will be measured not by how well some students are served but by how well all groups of students are served. If institutional leaders and those of us working alongside them don’t have the courage to confront the reality of what’s happening on our campuses in the narratives of all students, whether on commencement lists or dropout rolls, we are merely comforting ourselves with a half-true story that plays on repeat each year.
Bonita J. Brown is director of higher education practice at The Education Trust. She most recently served as vice chancellor and chief of staff at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro.